In William Finnegan’s brilliant memoir, Barbarian Days, A Surfing Life, an early chapter is called “Off Diamond Head.”  He recounts stories of learning to surf and how to relate to both the locals and the waters surrounding Oahu.  It seems to me that one often learns more in the process of looking backwards than in the present.  In other words, meaning is found through reflection.

On this work trip, I made sure to find time at the end of the days to explore other parts of the island.  This included short excursions to places near Diamond Head, such as Halona Beach Cove and Kailua, and also the hidden, beautiful ————- Beach near the town of Haleiwa.  In all these places, there is much and nothing to see.  But the draw is always the water.  The sheer number of waves, stacks and stacks it seemed, were awe-inspiring and also unusual to me.  For the first time, I could see the difference between a beach with waves, and waves that would be worth searching out, waiting for.

I stopped at a shop on the edges of Waikiki one evening and spoke to the owner, who recounted a story of learning to surf in the 1960’s as a kid.  He told me of surfing with a friend who apparently violated some of the unwritten code among local surfers one day out on the waves in the lineup, or perhaps just in the parking lot.  His friend ended up watching as one of the local boys took his surfboard and cracked it nearly in two with a few sharp, backward blows of an elbow before throwing it off a cliff.  He remembered later being able to see the board from the ocean, splayed upon a ledge of high rocks like a sacrifice to gods below.

It should not be surprising, any of this, as the Hawaiian islands and people are a culture in both literal and figurative terms. Interestingly, in the news before I arrived were stories of Hawaii’s population decreasing because it is increasingly too expensive to live there.  One afternoon on the way back from meetings, and stuck in Honolulu’s traffic, I listened to a conversation on a local radio station with Larry Bertlemann, a man I had never heard of, but an apparent legend in Hawaii’s surfing scene in the 1970s and 80s. Larry took phone calls, including from friends he had not heard from in years, and pulled memories and details from 20 years prior. He spoke a surfing language peppered with a foreign vocabulary of lines and maneuvers, and spoke of connections to people and figures from the past as if the listeners were seated around a table telling stories at a funeral.


Not Honest. But True.

Throughout this year, between the endless mountains of packed snow and the minutes stuck at the same morning traffic lights, I find myself singing the final chorus of this song over and over, accompanied by my boys on occasion, and other times as if my insides are pouring over the steering wheel. And that gorgeous gorgeous trumpet line…”You let the devil in your home!”

So sad to miss their show here in August.

Typhoon | A Take Away Show from La Blogotheque on Vimeo.

And I’m Going Down…

On occasion you find yourself doing things that seem strange to your notion of yourself. Like drinking a 16oz Pabst Blue Ribbon. Sometimes these strange details don’t bend your mind much, because you’re doing exactly the right thing. Which is to be drinking that PBR at an A.A. Bondy show with other people who clearly know the man’s music, understand that there’s something about what he does that will never signify super-stardom, but is, among all today’s drek, true. Normally when a musician sings and plays with eyes closed I wonder if it’s not a bit too affected. But that understated voice…Bondy, it is clear, is somewhere else when he plays. That somewhere must be a hard place, and I don’t envy him his demons, be they dark as pitch or just a light, gray rain.

There were couples, and singles, and old folks listening. I wished I’d recorded the whole thing in a 360 surround screen, it was that good. I don’t know if this description is accurate, but it hints at a respect for a performer that I haven’t seen in years from an audience. Even between songs people stayed quiet, understanding that spaces are just as much a part of the whole as anything else. And when, during one of those spaces, a woman called out, We love you Scott Bondy, he said exactly the right thing: Thank you, darling.


My barbaric yawp

Although Nathaniel Rateliff has left his former band The Wheel behind, he hasn’t lost his capacity for singing outwardly about the inner.  A wonderful new album, In Memory of Loss, is out now and I was lucky enough to catch him at a Brooklyn venue with about 30 others.  The first time I heard the Whitman-esque yawp at that ends this song, I felt as if I was listening somehow to a Native American voice expressing what words can never say.  Extraordinary.  For another version, accompanied by bassist Julie Davis, go here.


Underground Supper Club

As far as concepts go, Washington DC isn’t particularly a cutting-edge leader.  Leadership, when it appears, tends to be on the political stage, often high on theory and low in execution, and frankly has been disappointing in the past decade of rancorous partisan politicking.  So I shouldn’t have been surprised when I explained the concept of an underground supper club to some colleagues and was met with apprehension and skepticism.  Aside from being a gentle reminder that bureaucracies can coax creativity and adventure from us, it did strangely empower me to just go have a good time trying something new.

And so there was this last week in WaPo.  As I said to some, better the Food page than the front page.

The strangest thing since? All sorts of congratulatory emails (“cool” was the most frequent word used, which just shows how uncool I am), and having someone come into the elevator I was riding and say, “Hey, Mr. Secret Dinner!”

If I Married a Pedal Steel Player

Sometimes you shouldn’t underestimate the power of a live performance.  Some months ago I had a chance to see Langhorne Slim at the Rock and Roll Hotel, a small, DC locale.  Since then I’ve  been drawn fully into the alt.country motif, so much so that I’ve begun thinking how good life could be if I married a pedal steel player.  Last night I spent a Sunday evening seated, taking a trip through blues, honkytonk, and that old Americana that is so fashionable overseas and just so worth listening to.  Justin Townes Earle, with friends on the fiddle and upright bass, dressed in a bow-tie and skinny suit, blew me away.  Or blew me further away, because I was pretty far gone after listening to Joe Pug, who opened with his guitar and yes, a friend on the pedal steel. The thing about alt.country is that it’s much closer to poetry than other genres.  And it feels American, weighted by baggage and influence.  And sometimes it’s just about songwriters being songwriters in their own quirky, tattooed, lamb chop sideburns way, providing life’s answers much better than I could in writing.  You can listen here or just watch.

Langhorne Slim “I Love You But Goodbye”.


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Justin Townes Earle @ Mercy Lounge in Nashville, TN January 27th 2010

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